Looking for direction

I missed this afternoon’s budget and finance committee meeting. Record staff writers Jennifer Torres and Ashlee Lubniewski sat in. The following account of the meeting is from their notes.


Mayor Ann Johnston, Vice Mayor Kathy Miller and City Council members Elbert Holman Jr. and Diana Lowery toured Port of Stockton this morning by bus, less than a week after Holman, Lowery, Miller and Councilman Dale Fritchen snowed City Manager Gordon Palmer’s budget proposal. The fabric on the bus was like that on a casino bus, it was agreed, and at any other time a joke about the budget crisis might have been in order. This morning it was not, and between Palmer and the council members no warm fuzzies were exchanged.


Palmer this afternoon was in front of the council’s budget and finance committee. “Clearly we heard last Tuesday night … that you’d like us not to count on any of the money in the COPS grant,” he said. “I’ll follow your lead on how you want me to proceed.”


Fritchen, the committee chairman, suggested not increasing the city’s reserve fund by $2.8 million in fiscal 2009-10. And he asked if the budget anticipated savings from the ongoing hiring freeze.


Palmer said his proposed budget accounted for planned layoffs and the freezing of unfilled positions, but it did not anticipate more.


Fritchen said it is hard to believe no other employee will retire or otherwise leave the city.


If Fritchen liked, Palmer said, staff could make an estimate of the savings that might be had.


“A very conservative one,” Fritchen  said.


How anticipating that uncertainty is different than anticipating federal aid – which Fritchen objected to last week – was not explored in any detail, though Miller suggested a distinction: “If we’re planning on a conservative number, that’s a likely number that’s based on past experience and legitimate numbers.”


Fritchen, one might recall, opposed Palmer’s budget plan because it anticipated COPS money, which he said is too uncertain.


Later Fritchen told Palmer to look at community development for more possible cuts.


“You might not need as much in that department as anticipated,” he said. “I’m not telling you what to do, just take a closer look at it.”


Palmer wanted direction.


“I would like to ask direction. There’s probably not enough savings or money in what I’ve just discussed,” he said, so he asked if the committee would prefer across-the-board cuts or targeted ones.


“I’m just trying to get some sort of guidance,” Palmer said.


Fritchen said, “I’d like to see a scenario that avoids public safety.”


And then he said, “Whatever the city manager thinks would be most appropriate.”


The committee is to meet at 3 p.m. Thursday to go over with Palmer various budget scenarios.

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